The obvious cause of Friday’s explosion at the 96-room hotel was a natural gas leak. There were no visitors to the 19th-century building in the Old Havana area at the time, as it was undergoing renovations before its opening on Tuesday after closing.
Havana authorities on Saturday increased the death toll to 26, according to the official news site Cubadebate. Among the dead were four children and a pregnant woman. Spanish President Pedro Sanchez said on Twitter that among the dead was a Spanish tourist, and another Spaniard was seriously injured.
Cuban authorities have confirmed the death of the tourist and said her partner was injured. They did not stay at the hotel. Tourism Minister Delilah Gonzalez said a Cuban-American tourist was also injured.
Representatives of Grupo de Turismo Gaviota SA, which owns the hotel, said at a press conference on Saturday that at that time the hotel had 51 employees, as well as two people working on the renovation. Of these, 11 died, 13 are missing and six are hospitalized.
Gonzalez said the cause of the blast was still being investigated, but on Saturday a large crane lifted a charred gas tanker from under the hotel’s rubble.
VIDEO: An obvious gas leak caused an explosion that damaged a Havana hotel; 8 deaths were reported
Search and rescue teams worked all night and Saturday, using stairs to descend through the rubble and twisted metal into the hotel’s basement as heavy machinery carefully pushed back piles of the building’s facade to provide access. Upstairs pieces of drywall hung from wires, tables stood seemingly intact inches from the void where the front of the building split.
At least one survivor was found early Saturday in the ruined ruins, and rescuers with the help of search dogs scrambled over huge chunks of concrete, searching for more. Relatives of the missing remained on the scene, while others gathered at hospitals to help the victims.
Desperate Yatmara Kobas stood behind the perimeter and waited for news from her daughter, 27-year-old housekeeper Shaidis Kobas.
“My daughter is in Saratoga, she’s been there since 8 am (Friday), and at this time I don’t know anything about her,” Cobas said. “She’s not in the morgue, she’s not in the hospital.” The mother said she went everywhere to seek answers from the authorities, but came empty-handed.
“I’m tired of lying,” she said.
Lt. Col. Enrique Peña informed Commander Ramire Valdes, who fought alongside Fidel Castro, of search operations on the spot on Saturday morning.
Peña said the presence of people was detected on the ground floor and in the basement, and four teams of search dogs and handlers are working. He did not know whether the victims were alive or dead.
“I don’t want to move from here,” Christina Avelar told the Associated Press near the hotel.
Avelar was waiting for news from 57-year-old cashier Odalis Barrera, who has been working at the hotel for five years. She is the godmother of Barr’s daughters and considers her a sister.
Neighbors were shocked a day after the explosion.
“I thought it was a bomb,” said Guillermo Madan, a 73-year-old retiree who lives just a few meters from the building but was not injured. A 30-year-old resident of the neighborhood was preparing and watching TV when he heard the explosion. “My room moved from here to there. A neighbor has a broken window, plates, everything. “
At the time, 31-year-old Catherine Morera was shopping. “I came out of the store and felt the explosion,” she said. – Everyone started running.
Despite the fact that none of the tourists were injured, the explosion was another blow to the country’s most important tourism industry.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic prevented tourists from Cuba, the country struggled with tougher sanctions imposed by former US President Donald Trump and kept the Biden administration. These are limited visits by American tourists to the islands and restrictions on Cuban money transfers to the U.S. to their families in Cuba.
Tourism began to revive a little early this year, but the war in Ukraine offset a boom in Russian tourists, which accounted for nearly a third of tourists who arrived in Cuba last year.
Dr Julio Gera Iskjerda, head of the Ministry of Health’s hospitals service, said at least 74 people had been injured. Among them were 14 children, according to Twitter from the office of President Miguel Diaz-Canel.
A school for 300 students near the hotel was evacuated. Havana Governor Reynaldo Garcia Zapata said five students suffered minor injuries.
The iconic hotel offers stunning views of central Cuba, including the Capitol Building with a dome about 110 meters from it. The blast in the Capitol shattered glass and damaged masonry.
The hotel was renovated in 2005 as part of the revival of old Havana by the Cuban government and is owned by a division of the Cuban military tourism business Grupo de Turismo Gaviota SA. The company said it was investigating the cause of the blast, and did not respond to an email from the AP requesting more information about the hotel and the renovations it was undergoing.
Previously, the Saratoga Hotel was used to visit VIPs and politicians, including high-ranking U.S. government delegations. Beyoncé and Jay-Z stayed there in 2013.
Garcia Zapata said the structures adjacent to the hotel are being assessed, including two badly damaged apartment buildings. Diaz-Canel said families in the affected buildings have been relocated to safer locations.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was scheduled to arrive on a visit to Havana on Saturday night, and Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said the visit would still take place.
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